Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bridging the Gap

Darryl, Ben, and Matt have asked some very good questions that all seem to revolve around one issue: the nasty problem of interpreting the Bible as God's Word. I say, "nasty" because it is not only a difficult issue, but it also creates difficulties between us.

To answer the question, let me say at the outset that this problem is not unique to the free church tradition (although you'd think that churches taking a more magisterial approach would not have to deal with such problems--hardly, members of the RCC or the Anglican communion have members who do not share the interpretation of their leaders).

At the risk of over simplification, I think the solution is recognizing that interpretation of the Bible belongs to the community of faith (both now and then, both clergy and laity). John writes that his church should "test the spirits" to see if interpretations are true. Peter writes that no Scripture/prophecy can be interpreted by one person. In other words, if the Spirit is responsible for leading us to understand the Scriptures, and since no single person (or group) controls the Spirit, then the only way we can understand the Scriptures is to interpret them together (Ben's suggestion is relevant here).

So, what happens if we disagree? Are some interpretations more important than others?

What I think would help our discussions is to categorize which doctrines are primary, secondary, tertiary, and quadriary. I know that sounds risky to some; it makes it appear that we think some Scriptures are more important than others. That's not what I'm saying. Rather, since all doctrine is of human invention, then we are merely recognizing some of our interpretations are more important than others.

Here's how I would break it down: primary doctrines are of eternal significance, secondary doctrines are of temporal significance, tertiary doctrines are of cultural significance, quadriary doctrines are of personal significance.

Honestly, most scholarly work is done on the second and third levels. Most lay people don't think beyond the first (I think that's what Matt is getting at) and the fourth levels. Therefore, a discussion that acknowledges a rubric like this I think would help us get beyond the ivory tower work of scholars and clergy, and the isolationist/obscurantist views of the laity.

What do you think?


Darryl Schafer said...

I like it. I just get frustrated when some see no difference between their interpretation and what the Scriptures "say" -- they're taken as coterminous.

I'm not suggesting that anything goes (Revelation is not a recipe for apple pie), but I wonder if we can't allow for some flexibility, some leniency, some grace in matters of interpretation. That's what I'm hearing in your schematic.

My problem: extending that same leniency to those who don't subscribe to it.

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Anonymous said...

I have found that much of what I dealt with during my brief time of scholarship hasn't been that helpful to my church. Most people don't care about the more minute details of scholarship. Most don't even care about some of the hot button issues (calvinism/Armenian debate, etc.) they just want help with raising their kids, with surviving in the "real world."

As I work as a pastor, I find that my list of primary doctrines is smaller, but more tightly held. I believe less than what I used to believe. A friend and I talked recently, and we decided that if you have a truly tidy systematic theology, you aren't doing much ministry.

B Grif said...

Although I do like how it highlights the importance of biblical literacy, the claim that all doctrine is human invention bothers me. Without sounding to naive, how do we not slide into the the troubles of reader response criticism? More specifically, how should we reconcile your claim with Moses' words in Deut. 30: 11-14?

Rodney Reeves said...

B Grif,

Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't see the correlation between doctrine and Moses' speech in Deut. 30.

When I say that all doctrine is of human invention, I'm merely reflecting a free church tradition (esp. a Baptist tradition). Simply put: All creeds are man-made. All confessions are temporal. Only the Word of God is eternal.

Matt Kimbrough said...

Sorry, life has been out of control lately, so I'm a little late chiming in. I agree with your assessment of church history. Each group has their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to interpretation. But, does such an approach run the risk of being reductionistic? Or, is there way to emphasize that the secondary, tertiary, etc. doctrines are still highly valuable?

Rodney Reeves said...


To me the discussion regarding levels of doctrine would reveal a number of things: our traditions, our hermeneutic, our presumptions, etc. Therefore, I think it would have a two-fold effect: discovering how much different Christian traditions have in common, and how our distinctive traditions are important (though, perhaps, not of eternal significance). In other words, an intellectually honest discussion would lead to reductionist conclusions. On the other hand, for those who "show up" at the table merely to defend their traditions, then, yes, that would lead to a collapse of theological nuance.

I've seen this happen (both the former and the latter) in a variety of contexts.

Rodney Reeves said...

it should read . . .

"an intellectually honest discussion would NOT lead to reductionist conclusions."

Chris Ryan said...

Can we really categorize doctrines in any ecumenical way? Baptism is a matter of eternal significance for some traditions: you don't get to heaven without it. Yet others think of it only as a way of remembering how to navigate the temporal world faithfully, but one is not eternally saved or damned because of baptism.

I remember one Catholic youth who worked for me at a camp one summer. He thought his grandmother would be rolling over in his grave at the thought of him not being able to take communion every week through the summer. It mattered because taking of the Eucharist had salvific connotations. As a Baptist, I didn't quite share his concern.

There are a lot of doctrines that I imagine we can categorize pretty consistently across boundaries. Some, like baptism and Eucharist, don't categorize as well. In dialogue with RCC, I imagine that matters of ecclesiological order don't categorize as neatly either. So is it really possible to do what you are describing here and not be sectarian?

JDTapp said...

Rodney, if you're still taking questions, how about some reading recommendations?